Monday, September 28, 2009
On Chaos and College Football
I thought about many things as I watched my alma mater drown in a sea of its own ineptitude on national television Saturday night. But mostly, I was thinking about Slippery Rock. And you may already know where I'm going with this, but in case you don't: Every year, someone figures a way to concoct a victory chain, a series of results in a logical progression that somehow manages to prove some eighth-tier liberal arts school deserves the national championship over Florida. I grew up in the wilds of central Pennsylvania, and so that school was usually Slippery Rock, because who can help but root for a college that sounds like it could be the title of a They Might Be Giants album?
In fact, I figured someone would have put a web site together to calculate these possibilities, because this seems like one of the primary purposes for the invention of the Internet. Not surprisingly, I was right. Here is the victory chain from Slippery Rock to Oklahoma in 2008:
Slippery Rock beat Kutztown who beat St Anselm who beat Merrimack who beat Stonehill who beat Wagner who beat Marist who beat Davidson who beat Jacksonville FL who beat San Diego who beat UC-Davis who beat Portland St who beat Eastern Washington who beat Weber St who beat Cal Poly SLO who beat San Diego St who beat UNLV who beat Wyoming who beat Tennessee who beat Vanderbilt who beat Mississippi who beat Florida
I was thinking about these victory chains not merely because Penn State lost, and not merely because Penn State seems likely to lose again and I was probably grasping for some measure of justification for what now seems like an inevitably disappointing season. I was thinking about victory chains because their fallacious logic justifies everything that is great and wonderful about college football, because it is a reminder that no sport* is more unpredictable, or more consistently harrowing, from week to week. College football is based in chaos**; there are so many variables, so many outliers, so many results that don't seem to compute. Think about it: The greatest play in the history of college football involved a dozen laterals and a trombone player. Top five teams are constantly losing, despite the pollsters' attempts to impose a structure and a social hierarchy on the season. California wins by three touchdowns, then loses by five touchdowns. USC survives on the road against a Top 10 team, then loses to the Detroit Lions of the Pac Ten. Miami's appears to have spearheaded a revival, and then embarrasses itself on the road. Nothing makes sense. Teams find their way, then lose their way, and find their way again, and by then it is often too late, because there is so little margin for error.
I know I slag on baseball far too often in this space. But I'm reading Joe Posnanski's The Machine, about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. I couldn't have cared less about that team, but the book is truly excellent, and I highly recommend it, and yet it also got me thinking about why I loved baseball so much as a kid and yet it seems anachronistic to me today. Maybe it's because baseball is such a careful and meticulous construction; the central tenet of the game is imposing order amid the routine of daily life (the early chapters of The Machine essentially center around the Reds' conservative manager, Sparky Anderson, attempting to carve out a winning lineup while confessing his problems to a Holiday Inn manager and refusing to allow his players to grow mustaches). Baseball was the metaphor for American life before the 1960's came along, with good reason, and it's history and heritage remains fascinating to me. But that world is long gone.
Football, for all its militaristic pretense, is essentially a desperate attempt to impose order amid the utter chaos of life. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and lately, given the diffusion of talent, given the pressure on athletes and the intensity of the home-field advantage, it has become more difficult than ever for any college football team to emerge unscathed. It may be that no one emerges in December without at least one loss. The tyranny of the victory chain is absolute. Chaos reigns. And maybe, if college sports can still be at all regarded as a formative experience for its participants as they prepare to enter the modern world, that's the way it should be.
*Possible exception: The NCAA basketball tournament. But even March Madness has become a much more predictable event in the era of RPI's and number-crunching.
**Or as my friend used to pronounce it when he was a kid, when he had only come across the word in books: CHOW-se. As in, "It's CHOW-se out there on the playground!"